The Freak

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Justify | Sarah K. Andrew

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It's not so much that Justify (Scat Daddy) won the Triple Crown yesterday in the GI Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park, it's how he won the Triple Crown. Sixteen weeks ago he was an unraced maiden debuting in a seven-furlong race at Santa Anita. Today, he is the 13th horse to have accomplished the most difficult feat in horse racing, winning the Triple Crown.

That's supposed to be impossible.

The world “freak” is thrown around way too easily and frequently in horse racing. They'll call one that after an impressive maiden win at Saratoga or Del Mar and then you'll never hear from them again. Hyperbole gets in the way of logic. But not this time. Justify is a freak of nature. He has to be. Anything less of a horse could not have pulled this off.

Sure, this is not the Triple Crown of the 1940s where horses came into the Belmont as seasoned, tough pros. Citation started his 2-year-old season in April, raced nine times as a 2-year-old, and the Belmont was his 11th start of his 3-year-old year. Trainer Jimmy Jones was apparently so concerned about the time off between the Preakness and the Belmont that he started him in between in the Jersey Derby. But Justify started off so far behind his peers that, logically, he couldn't possibly catch up. Seasoning and experience are supposed to still matter.

One person who wasn't buying that was Bob Baffert. After Justify broke his maiden on Feb. 18, most trainers would have said they didn't have time to make the Kentucky Derby and circled something like the GI Travers S. on their calendar. Not Baffert. He told everyone he had a plan and he was going to do everything he could to get the horse to Louisville. Then there was the allowance win at Santa Anita on March 11. Then the win in the GI Santa Anita Derby. That made him three-for-three and a deserving favorite for the Kentucky Derby, except no horse had won that race without having started as a 2-year-old since 1882. No problem. Justify overcame a taxing early pace and ran off to win by 2 1/2 lengths.

He didn't look nearly as good when winning the GI Preakness S., as Bravazo (Awesome Again) and Tenfold (Curlin) gave him a scare. That had me jumping off the bandwagon. From a horse that was being built up to be the second coming of Pegasus, his Preakness win was on the ordinary side and I thought it was a sure sign that Justify had been asked to do too much, that he was finally going to go in the other direction.

I made one major mistake. I failed to realize he was not an ordinary horse.

As it turned out, the Belmont wasn't even a particularly difficult race for him. On paper, it looked like he could control the pace of the race and that unless someone was going to do something so foolish as to try to cook him early he could have things his own way. It didn't exactly start out that way. He left the gate in a hurry.

“He was standing so still. I didn't think he was going to break today,” jockey Mike Smith told NBC. “He left there like he was going 440 yards at Ruidoso, New Mexico.”

That meant a quick first quarter of 23.37 and it looked like it might get worse as the other Baffert-trained horse Restoring Hope (Giant's Causeway) was eager to go under Florent Geroux.

But things settled down and when Justify got to the half in 48.11 and the three-quarters in 1:13.21, you pretty much knew the race was over. In the end, the only horse who was running at him was Gronkowski (Lonhro {Aus}). It was a terrific race from the European shipper who had recently joined the Chad Brown barn. With his name and his lack of credentials, Gronkowski seemed to be in the race as nothing more than a publicity stunt. So much for that.

Justify is the star and he did all the hard work, but let's not forget about Baffert. This goes down as one of the great training jobs in history and I seriously doubt there's another trainer in the sport that could have pulled it off.

There's a reason Baffert now has won 15 Triple Crown races– the most of any trainer–and, along with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, is the only trainer to have won the Triple Crown twice.

“It never gets old,” an emotional Baffert told NBC.

As good as some of his rivals are, their shortcoming is that they can't get horses to run back to back superior efforts unless they give them ample time between races. Not Baffert. He doesn't baby his horses and it shows in the afternoons. The Triple Crown is supposed to take a tremendous toll on a horse, but it just doesn't happen with Baffert's horses. It didn't happen with American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile) and, really, it didn't happen with any of Baffert's horses that came up short when going for the Triple Crown. The only horse among that group that ran poorly was War Emblem (Our Emblem), and he lost all chance at the start when stumbling.

In the glow of a Triple Crown win it almost went unnoticed that Baffert started three horses at Belmont yesterday and came away with three graded stakes wins. He also won the GI Ogden Phipps S. with Abel Tasman (Quality Road) and the GII Brooklyn Invitational with Hoppertunity (Any Give Saturday).

Baffert is relatively young at 65, and every year dozens of gifted 2 year-olds come into his barn. Something tells me he's far from done.

The story going forward is sure to be who is better American Pharoah or Justify? There's no answer to that question. Let's just enjoy them both. The horse that broke the 37-year Triple Crown drought and the chestnut horse that made history yesterday at Belmont. Make that the chestnut freak of nature that made history yesterday at Belmont Park.

 

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